Of all the networks, Seven has the unenviable ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of success, but after the success of Desperate Housewives last night, it’s suddenly a far more competitive game.

It could very well be the most important night of 2005 in commercial TV in this country.

Monday, January 31, just after 8.30pm when the first episode of Desperate Housewives, a much hyped and anticipated US series that a desperate Seven Network was hoping would help it succeed this year after so many false starts in the past three years, started.

Seven had, in the past, hyped a new program only for it to underperform. Just look at the poor performance of many of the shows promoted heavily during last year’s Olympic Games. Dancing with the Stars surprising Seven and many in the industry by being not only the one success of that blitz, but the most successful local program of the year.

Now Seven has spent the past month steadily raising the promotional hype for Desperate Housewives and Lost, which goes to air on Thursday night.

Twelve hours later at 8.30am around the country in TV stations, advertising offices, media and commentators, analysts and a clutch of independent producers awaited the verdict on that hour of Monday night TV.

The Oztam ratings figures were downloaded into the various computers, mainframes PCs, PDAs, such as Blackberries and the like used by subscribers at 8.30am.

There were a lot of people tuned in. More so than normal on the Tuesday morning of the last week of non-official ratings.

Within minutes the stunning debut of Desperate Housewives was apparent. More than 2.4 million viewers, a peak of 2.6 million or so. The biggest debut audience for years.

At Seven, executives and others were standing around, waiting in their offices for the download to be completed and for the analysis to begin. David Leckie, Peter Meakin, Tim Worner, the programming chief and his staff, James Warburton, the network sales chief brought to the network last year by David Leckie.

Suddenly a year that was looking interesting, but challenging, was made much easier. Leckie and Worner had had a big win (huge when coupled with the gamble of starting a week earlier than regular ratings). James Warburton’s problems in selling Seven’s story to skeptical advertisers was made much much easier, and for others in the network, especially the board and chairman, Kerry Stokes, there was a reason to smile and put a little more faith in the words and guarded assurances of the likes of Leckie and Worner.

And with the other big US series, Lost, due to go to air on Thursday (after being strongly promoted during the tennis) Seven’s chances to at least match Nine and pulling away from Ten looks greater than they did 12 hours earlier.

Of course a night doesn’t make success in a year. Of all the networks, Seven has the unenviable ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of success. But it’s suddenly a far more competitive game.

With Lost, there are hopes around Seven of another good debut. Not 2.4 million people, the size of the viewing audience on Thursday nights will not allow that.

Around 1.5 million would make Seven very happy and mean that it has solved, for the time being anyway, its toughest problem, how to fix up its weakest night of the week.

For Nine though, with its ratings giants of Getaway and ER, Thursday night looks tougher. If Lost translates well then there will be no easy wins. With Ten using its Law and Order Criminal Intent series in the timeslot, Thursday evenings will be a knock-em down fight between the three, something the executive team at Nine has not had to handle since it was put in place back in 2002.

But Nine had reason for a mild gloat last night. Starstruck did well with more than 1.58 million viewers on average. The acts, the transformations, the performance were all good, but the panel was a dud as were Larry Emdur and Catriona Rowntree as hosts.

One of the interesting points about Ten and Australian Idol how the network developed the panel of judges as characters and found new stars there (as they had to under the format). So much so that Seven pinched Dicko rather than find its own for the new series of My Restaurant Rules.

But Nine had no such luck. Only hours earlier Nine viewers would have seen Larry Emdur introducing a Monster Showcase on a tired repeat of The Price is Right from last year.

Catriona Rowntree was used over summer to front a bought-in holiday reality program, so she’s no breath of fresh air or new face.

And next week it goes up against the new X-Factor on Ten.

The good showing though by Starstruck will make Ten a touch worried about X-Factor. It is a bit mee-too when compared to Idol and that’s the concern. Younger viewers say seen this and tune out, or watch in lower numbers waiting for the real thing later in the year.

Starstruck will be up against the second program when decisions etc are made. It could be a battle of blockers, allowing Seven to do well with The Great Outdoors.

But in turn Nine has another quandary, what do with Eddie McGuire’s Who wants to be a Millionaire, which returns next Monday night at 8.30pm.

It attracts older viewers, while on last night’s performance, Desperate Housewives appeals across all demographics, but a little more to 16 to 49.

Cold Case on Nine which has equal appeal was blitzed by Housewives, so Nine now has to wonder, if we run Eddie against Housewives from next Monday, will Seven bomb it as well?